Situated on Dorset’s Cranborne Chase, Wimborne St. Giles is a pretty little village where both time and manners have stood still for at least fifty years. Since the 15th Century this has been home to the Earls of Shaftsbury, and part of its genteel preservation and tranquillity is due, for sure, to generations of the same family owning the village. You are surrounded by rolling green pastures, dotted with sheep and cows that are so unused to passing traffic they stampede out of the way even when you drive into the village at 20 miles an hour.
It was in a very deplorable state of disrepair that Mark Thornton originally found the village pub, The Bull, right at its centre, and so I wonder how the locals have received its renovation and newly found gastronomic success since its re-opening in November 2009.
As you enter the pub you will find a very warm, welcoming atmosphere in quite a modern and simple setting. The style is very clean, minimal, fresh and uncluttered: pistachio green woodwork, string coloured walls, glass chandeliers, wooden tables and chairs, part coir carpet, part wooden floor boards and lots of colourful old prints of the surrounding countryside and all its sports. Roxy, Mark’s wife, is the owner of the India Jane interiors shop in Wimborne Minster, and the whole building showcases her soft, feminine touches.
Our upstairs room (one of five) is decorated in quite a colonial way, with reproduction campaign furniture, gentleman’s club claret and gold soft furnishings and an Oriental style wardrobe. Shower rooms are sparkling clean and modern, with good linens and White Company toiletries. There are hand-made macaroons in kilner jars, a big file containing lots of local information, Japanese style silk flower prints and plenty of space to unpack, unwind and enjoy the breathtaking views of open countryside.
You come downstairs for dinner and you can decide whether you want to sit in the conservatory (think antlers, big windows and quiet corners) or in the more communal, wide, open plan central dining room, with comfortable leather chairs and sofas, newspapers, wood burning stoves and framed French bistro posters.
High on the list of recommendations is the seat with the view: there is one table that looks straight through a hatch and into the kitchen, where the chefs are busy preparing your dinner. Watch as they serve, position, tweak, decorate, wipe and send your plate through the pass and you will understand just how skilful a job it is.
Part of the reason why the pub is so busy during the week is because The Bull has won its fair share of gongs and golds, putting it firmly on the map of foodie cognoscenti in that Blandford – Poole – Ringwood triangle that has never been thought of as the centre point for culinary inspiration. Its owner is in no way smug about The Bull’s ascent, however:
“In reality you have to be very patient, at the beginning, as nothing happens quickly. There is definitely a “bedding-in” period when you take over a pub, but we spent any quiet moments making sure we found the right suppliers and the right team to work here,” Mark told me.
He enthuses about his butcher, Simon Harvell of Iwerne Minster, the local trout farm, fresh fruit and vegetables from a local walled garden, his Head Chef Ian Craddock and Sous Chef Ian James. His business is founded upon the principle that if you spend £1 locally, at least 80 pence stays in the local economy, whereas if you spend your money even a few miles down the road very few people living and working in your area will reap any benefit .
Mark’s thinking cap is on with regards to making sure The Bull becomes the hub of the local community:
“To get everyone round the table enjoying good food and wine we have created a series of tastings, where people can come for a locally sourced supper. There is a good wine expert on hand to explain the wines that have been chosen to go with the various dishes and then everyone gets to compare and chat. It’s all very informal and relaxed: I don’t like those really serious, pompous wine tastings, so we are organising ours to be friendly and laid back.”
The menu for the next “Bordeaux Tasting Evening” features five courses and five wines including Cornish crab cakes, terrine of ham hock, baked ceps with pancetta and three West country cheeses.
The Thorntons originally came to this part of Dorset because they wanted to leave London and educate their daughter at Castle Court School, near Wimborne. They also own The Anchor in Shapwick, which they took over in March 2007.
“The two main things I have tried to attain are relaxation and comfort,” Mark told me, “everything else then fits into place.”
The food at The Bull is definitely Fergus Henderson and St. John’s inspired: very simply cooked and presented food with few frills and little pretension. Even the wording on the Menu is testimony to a philosophy where less is more, with no capitals and no descriptions: “wild rabbit and pancetta pie, braised red cabbage, mash”, “griddled sardines, tomato and shallot salad”, “blueberry clafoutis, vanilla ice-cream”.
You will find a starter of soft, smashed white beans, mandolin thin raw courgettes seasoned with roasted cumin, a fresh salad and grilled toasts. Tender, buttery calves’ liver is served with a potato cake and creamy leeks. A warming risotto is flavoured with ceps and sherry. You can see its mantecatura through the hatch as the chef mixes in butter and grated Parmiggiano Reggiano with a spatula. There is a very intense dark chocolate tart, served with a rich chocolate ice-cream and a sweet-and-tart cherry griottine jelly.
The food is very flavoursome, well sourced, well-seasoned, fuss-free and honest, with prices to match. If you stay the night do make sure you order “The Full Bull” breakfast the following day: it will set you up for the most energetic of walks or shooting round the estates of Cranborne, Crichel and Rushmore, foodie visits to nearby Shaftsbury, beach walks and crabbing along the Jurassic coast or rounds of golf at Remedy Oak, voted amongst the very best golf courses in the world.
Do make sure also that you walk around Wimborne St.Giles before you leave: pass through the cream picket fence, past the rose covered cottages, the moss covered wrought iron railings and the peeling bells of the handsome Church. Such places are quickly disappearing from the landscape of modern Britain. Savour its gentle beauty and breathe in its crystal clean air.
The Bull Inn, Wimborne St Giles, Dorset BH21 5NF
Telephone: 01725 517 300
Follow the team on twitter: @bullwsg